Ethics at the Core Ministry
By Joseph J. Saggio
Paul’s admonitions to those aspiring to ministry form the heart of his teachings found in both 1 Timothy and Titus. Today they still form the core of our Fellowship’s standards in credentialing men and women to the ministry. Unfortunately, too often we hear of those who have departed from these teachings as they progress in their calling. Perhaps the idea of shortcutting their way to success makes ethics seem a trifle outdated or, at the very least, a nuisance.
As I move into my third decade of active ministry, I am becoming increasingly concerned that an “end justifies the means” theology has taken root in the hearts of some of our preachers, and they have lost sight of the need to hold fast to integrity and strong ethics.
Because of the media’s strong bashing of Pentecostals in the last few years, we need to return to a Pauline understanding of what it means to be an elder. Our ability to represent Christ effectively to a world that is rapidly spiraling toward judgment will be strongly impacted by how we are perceived by those both inside and outside our Fellowship. Here are three areas of needed concentration and focus:
Ethics In Finance
No area is charged with sloppy ethics more than finance. Paul said, “Now the overseer must be above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2, NIV). Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible indicates that anepileptos should be literally translated as “inculpable: blameless, unrebukeable.” This means by extension that the minister practices fiscal integrity both in his personal life and in the administration of the church.
I once served a church in the same town where another Assemblies of God church had a poor reputation for not paying its bills. Unfortunately, my church was occasionally confused with that church, which caused embarrassment for our senior pastor, who strove to maintain a good reputation in the community.
Also, a church’s finance should be kept above board so those who participate in the financial base can see where their giving is being directed. Nothing undermines a person’s motivation to give to the Lord’s work more quickly than a feeling that the church is using poor stewardship. A church’s finance is one of the most effective barometers I know for measuring a congregation’s approval or dissatisfaction with the church’s leadership. I have discovered that people contribute best when they can see where the giving is directed and when they know that their tithes and offerings will be handled with integrity.
Ethics In The Pulpit
Much is said in our pulpits that has no place there at all. Several years ago my wife and I were quite surprised to hear a pastor, whose ministry we greatly respect, give details of a counseling appointment he had with a female counselee. Even though he did not give her name, the fact she may have been seated in the audience made us feel uncomfortable.
Perhaps we have lost sight of what is appropriate to share in our messages. I suspect that the pressure to produce fresh and relevant illustrations sometimes causes us to use material of questionable appropriateness. Examples from counseling that would violate a sacred confidence are not appropriate for our pulpits no matter how tantalizing the details may be. In fact, gross negligence in this area could leave one open to litigation, thus giving an added incentive to keep counseling illustrations out of our pulpits.
A second area of concern in pulpit ethics is plagiarism. How often we freely use someone else’s material without giving credit to the source. Surveys have shown that preachers are notoriously guilty of using other source material without giving proper credit, according to Raymond W. McLaughlin in his book, The Ethics of Persuasive Preaching (Baker, 1979, page 24). Though extensive footnoting is not necessary in a sermon, acknowledgment of the source is always appropriate. We need to remember that plagiarism, no matter how well-intentioned, is still stealing.
The third area of concern is using the pulpit as a launching pad for verbal attacks on those with whom we disagree. The televangelism debacle brought that into sharp focus as vicious, vitriolic attacks were launched from the safety of the pulpit. I remember once being confronted by a couple who was displeased with some disparaging remarks I made about some other churches. When I realized what they were saying I apologized profusely to them and publicly to the congregation for that indiscretion. We must be careful that we use preaching only for the propagation of the gospel of Jesus Christ—never as a forum for our own personal likes and dislikes.
Ethics in our relationships
One of the most visible areas of a pastor’s ministry is his relationship with others. If our relationships with those both inside and outside our Fellowship are strong, then we have a greater chance of being granted a hearing so we can tell others about Christ. Besides a relationship with the Lord, each must put his next priority on relationships with his spouse and children. Since part of my job is to role model for others, I make sure that it is obvious I love both my wife and two daughters. One of the greatest gifts I can give to my congregation is that of a good witness regarding how I treat my family.
How do you treat your other staff members? They should not only be treated well in private, but they also need to be honored in public as well. A feud between two staff members can be contagious if allowed to be viewed by others. A youth pastor friend years ago was quite dissatisfied with his senior pastor, and I overheard him sharing his frustrations with two girls in his youth group. Though his complaints may have been valid, sharing them with his youth group was unethical. He resigned soon afterward.
We also need to cultivate good relationships with those outside our Fellowship as well. I have served as a chaplain for the county sheriff’s department, which allows me to get out into the community in a way that I might not otherwise. Recently I was called to the home of a man who had been discovered dead by his son. Despondent, the son called for a chaplain, and I was dispatched to the scene. Some days later he dropped by the church to thank me for spending a good portion of the night counseling him.
Finally, we must not be negligent in being ethical in our relationships with the opposite sex. Newspaper articles and television reports are replete with examples of talented ministers losing their credibility because of indiscretion with the opposite sex. Usually the relationship never intended to go that direction; instead, it developed over time. Since most pastors are men, and the bulk of their counseling load seems to be women, a real need exists to address this issue.
I leave the window shades open when I am counseling a woman in my office. Also, as a rule, I do not visit a female parishioner’s home unless her husband is present. If that is not possible, then my wife or perhaps another church leader accompanies me. Otherwise, the visit is postponed. Counseling vulnerable women should also be undertaken with great care. If there is even a hint a counselee is becoming attracted to us, or we to one of them, then an immediate referral should be made.
A Return To Ethics
Ministers need to recapture community respect like they once held. My great-grandfather, Frank Passetti, pastored Assemblies of God churches in Pennsylvania and New Jersey many years ago. I remember meeting him long after he had retired from active ministry and was struck with his extraordinary sense of personal holiness and integrity. Because of that he endeared himself to people throughout his community. Years after his death, one of my great-aunts told me about a man who had always been a source of pain to my great-grandfather. This man was publicly critical of him and constantly stirred up trouble. Yet, years later when he lay deathly ill it was Brother Passetti whom he called to his side for prayer.
My great-grandfather has become a significant role model for me, and my goal is to strive to live above reproach in all areas of my ministry. My prayer is that we as a Movement will place a stronger emphasis on ministerial integrity and ethics, especially since we want to impact this world positively. May we all have a fuller understanding of what it means to have ethics at the core of our ministry.